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August 23, 2005 [feather]
Low-cost accountability

The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh is so cash-poor that the College of Letters and Science will no longer pay to print syllabi for students. College dean Michael Zimmerman--whose $18.5 million annual budget is less than his budget was when he began his deanship fourteen years ago--says that teachers should put their syllabi on line instead of handing out paper copies to their students. Students who wish to have printed copies can then print their own, the reasoning goes, and the College will save the thousands of dollars it presently spends printing up syllabi for its 11,000 students. Supporters of the decree say that it's better to put syllabi and other course materials online where they can never be lost and where students can always access them; opponents argue that students need paper copies that they can carry with them and that it is especially important pedagogically to hand out paper copies of syllabi on the first day of class so that course requirements can be reviewed and clarified together.

One aspect of the decree that does not seem to have been noted, though, is perhaps the most interesting thing about it: Syllabi can be very revealing documents, and online syllabi that are expressly charged with replacing paper--and which must therefore be particularly detailed about assignments and so on--will be exceptionally so. As public concern about what really happens in college classrooms increases, online syllabi stand to become key documents in a debate that is hindered by an overall lack of documentation about how college teachers actually use their classrooms. Zimmerman may be thinking purely pragmatically, and his desire may simply be to cut a substantial cost. But his decision is a political one with fascinating potential implications for the professors and students at the Oshkosh campus.

Here--largely courtesy of Margaret Soltan's tireless interest in outrageous college courses--are just a few examples of college syllabi that tell an all-too detailed story of professors abusing their pedagogical prerogatives in order to impose their views on students. Well worth a look.

posted on August 23, 2005 11:24 AM


The reason I insist on handing out paper copies of the syllabus is not so much pedagogical as it is contractual; to physically put that pseudo-contract in each student's hand allows for fewer "I didn't know" arguments throughout the semester.

Posted by: Leopold Stotch at August 23, 2005 1:29 PM

I've had all my course materials on line for years--my academic dean, full of good advice, told me at the beginning that was fine, so long as I also offered my students paper copies of the many-page-long syllabus. He's a great believer in choice in every realm of life, but I'm thinking: Dean, why would anyone NOT take me up on the offer of a paper copy? Where's the downside?

So, I ignored him, yet again.

I have hundreds of pages of handouts, no textbook, and no interest in spending hours slaving over a hot copier.

Posted by: john goldfine at August 23, 2005 1:48 PM

I just sent off my daughter to college. I hope to God she doesn't have a teacher who tries to require her to perform a deviant act.

Leopold, as a person who supervises people who have a college education, I'd rather they learn not to say "I didn't know" to you than to me. I guess that's selfish of me.

Posted by: Laura at August 23, 2005 1:52 PM

This isn't efficiency; this is just cost-shifting. Most of the students will probably just print the syllabi out in the university computer lab and the costs will still be there; just from a different part of the budget. My guess is that this budget is either not charged out the Arts & Sciences, or is allocated out on a basis that is independent of actual resource use by students in that college.

Posted by: David Foster at August 23, 2005 2:24 PM

If printer/xerox costs on campus all come from broader overhead budgets rather than by department-managed budgets, e.g., xerox from one general wide support pool and while printers from technology services, the question of same-pool "cost-shifting" comes only from whether it's cheaper to xerox than to copy. I'm not sure what the big savings are here.

Posted by: Bill at August 23, 2005 3:23 PM

A good many places, including mine, monitor the students' printer usage when they use university equipment--once they hit 500 pages in a semester, they get charged per page, so the cost can be shifted at least partially to them. I admit to frustration with the paper copies--I used to have make 2x the needed number because the students always lost them. Now they get one freebie, and any subsequent ones have to be downloaded. My university treats copy services as a "profit center," so the departments have an incentive to save on copies.

On-line syllabi and other course materials can be "protected" by intranets to some degree. I suspect that the Professor de Sades out there will probably put their S&M 490 syllabi on a password-protected intranet rather than hang it out on a public website.

Posted by: ThaProf at August 23, 2005 4:38 PM

If the university is monitoring printer usage by student and charging for overage, then the policy is indeed a cost savings for the university as a whole--but it's still shifting cost to students rather than improving efficiency. I don't think it's realistic to expect people to read everything on the screen, at the current stage of the technology. When e-ink gets properly commercialized, things will be different.

Posted by: David Foster at August 23, 2005 5:06 PM

The overage charge did not start as a way of seriously shifting costs. The policy began when students were literally printing out entire textbooks, novels, etc. that they had downloaded, rather than buying them at a bookstore. In the mid-90's, toner cartridges in the typical printer lasted 1-2 days at most.

Once implemented, though, the gnomes in the business office saw the opportunity to make some extra dough....

Posted by: ThaProf at August 23, 2005 5:21 PM

For an example of what you can do with a blog and a set of a professor's on line syllabi, see here. This is the case of Sean McCann, an associate prof of English at Wesleyan who is primarily a specialist in "hard boiled detective fiction" and a notable at that cultural damp squib, The Valve. Among other things, he has consistent problems spelling the names of the authors in his courses -- most seem risible to varying degrees, though I thought one, in the years I reviewed, might have been worth taking. I think if more people poked around what's on line, we'd have more interesting results. McCann sure was ticked at me.

Posted by: John Bruce at August 23, 2005 7:22 PM

Financial info for Oshkosh seems a little opaque. Still it appears that they have a budget of $136 million and 12,000 undergrads.

That works out to $12,000 per student--actual expenditures.

I think that they can afford a few Xeroxes.

I am not sure how the grad students fit into the budgeting, but have at it:


Posted by: AB at August 24, 2005 6:21 PM